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Jewish World Review Oct. 5, 2000 / 6 Tishrei, 5761

George Will

George Will
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The Agony of Debate -- FOR THAT we missed the telecast of the A's-Yankees game? Surely it is obvious that these misbegotten and misnamed "debates"--actually, parallel press conferences--test no aptitude pertinent to the performance of serious presidential duties.

Such duties mostly involve the president in the solitary consideration of reports, memos and other documents prepared by people he has appointed for that purpose, or presiding at meetings of his senior specialists. Picking assistants and acting on the basis of their assistance is most of what presidents do.

True, presidents also must speak to the country about broad themes. They generally do this with carefully crafted and rehearsed addresses. This dimension of the presidency is utterly unrelated to the skills, such as they are, which the "debate" format used Tuesday rewards. The principal skill is the regurgitation of memorized phrases in response to anticipated questions.

The point of October debates is to sway those people who, although they have been bombarded by the candidates' rhetoric for eight months, are still undecided. Who are such people, and how, besides intermittently, do their minds work? Debates, it is said, are the Super Bowls of politics. The real Super Bowl--60 minutes of football encrusted with six hours of ballyhoo--is played each year largely for people negligibly, if at all, interested in football.

Debates have turned around elections perhaps three times--1960, 1976, 1980. George W. Bush's task on Tuesday was similar to John Kennedy's in 1960 and Ronald Reagan's in 1980. Kennedy, in just his second term as senator, and Reagan, a governor without foreign policy experience, had to appear large and responsible enough for the job. Bush, a governor in his second term, did so Tuesday evening.

In 1976 President Gerald Ford's verbal fender-bender, denying Soviet domination of Poland, made scant impression on voters until the media spent days dwelling on it. Tuesday night Bush did not give the media anything to work with in their relentless denigration of him.

Now that it has been redundantly demonstrated that the governor of the second-most populous state can competently address basic questions, even during Gore's histrionic sighs of condescension, the remainder of the campaign can be a prolonged posing of a straightforward choice:

Gore, never a stickler for subtlety, incessantly says that Bush's tax cut would "spend" too much money, and not on the "right" people. Confirmed statists--everyone who thinks government is spending money if, in a context of trillions of dollars of surpluses, it leaves 5 percent with those who earn it--should vote for Gore.

People should vote for Gore if they can listen without laughing when Gore, the poodle of trial lawyers and teachers' unions, says, as he did Tuesday night, that he is willing "to stand up to powerful interests."

People should vote for Gore if they are entertained by his compulsive self-aggrandizement, as in his response to Bush's praise of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its head, James Lee Witt, for helping Texas cope with, among other things, fires in Parker County. Gore said: "I accompanied James Lee Witt down to Texas when those fires broke out." Carl Cameron of Fox News Channel reports that the fires were in 1996, that Witt made two inspection trips, neither time with Gore. Gore voters are those who suspect no exaggeration when their man says Kailey Ellis "has to stand during class" when science is taught at her amazingly overcrowded school in Sarasota, Fla.

Correct thinkers can supposedly agree that Tuesday's only big blunder was by NBC. It has been execrated by the civic-minded for allowing local affiliates the option of carrying not the debate but baseball's version of Gore's theme about "the people" against "the powerful"--the A's against the Yankees.

Well. The debate was on CBS, ABC, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, PBS and C-Span. Why was an eighth carrier required, considering that no American was so situated that he or she could see the debate only if NBC carried it? If the principle is that Americans should be prevented from watching anything else, then perhaps the civic-minded should hector the government into imposing blackouts on HBO, ESPN, Discovery, Bravo, A&E and the rest. And maybe there should be neighborhood vigilance groups peeking through windows to make sure no one picks up a book during debates--never mind that probably 85 percent of the 50 percent of the electorate who will bother to vote have already decided how they will vote.

The best result of the first debate? Deflation of ballyhoo about the next two.

Comment on JWR contributor George Will's column by clicking here.


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